Apparently Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday perennial It’s a Wonderful Life now falls into the same category as the infamous 1997 Titanic — that is, a once widely-loved movie it has become quite fashionable to hate. Internet movie-discussion boards offer abundant opportunities for haters to express their loathing. Some of the complaints against Capra’s film hold water, others not so much. Perhaps over-familiarity has bred contempt; some folks have seen it just that one time too often. Also, tolerance for sentiment in cinema is (unfortunately) at an all-time low, with only animated features able to jerk tears and still win critical regard. But I suppose it is indeed possible to see the movie as a tragedy of a man whose adventurous spirit is crushed by the suburban middle-class existence in which he is trapped. And maybe it would be more fun to live in Pottersville, with its active jazz-inflected night life, than in sedate roll-up-the-sidewalks-after-dark Bedford Falls. And maybe the contrast between warm, sensual wife and mother Mary in Bedford Falls and sexless, neurotic librarian Mary in Pottersville is rather sexist. Also, Saturday Night Live’s “alternate ending” in which George Bailey and his legion of friends band together to beat up the evil Mr. Potter is not only funny but also quite satisfying.
Yet I love the film. I grew up watching it, and have deliberately refrained from watching it for the last several years, but still I love the film. I don’t expect this blog post or anything else to change the haters’ minds. That’s not what I’m after. My point is that it is possible for two or more people to see/hear/read the same piece of fiction and come away from it with completely different ideas. There’s no real “right” or “wrong” here, but instead the diverse meanings that creators and consumers create together.
My own take on George Bailey is the old-fashioned one: I find him an admirable hero, a man who, despite a multitude of disappointments, cares about the people around him. When he has the chance to make his dreams of travel come true by entering Mr. Potter’s employ, he chooses integrity over expedience and self-gratification; for me, this scene, even more than the iconic extended nightmare of “Pottersville,” is the movie’s and the character’s defining moment. George wants success, but not at the expense of his own honor and the welfare of those who depend on him. This makes him a hero I can root for, and James Stewart brings him to life with intelligence, vigor, and the humor that helps keep the film’s sentiment from lapsing into sentimentality.
Mary, George’s loyal and supportive wife and mother of his children (played by that un-ironic domestic goddess Donna Reed) raises a question: can a woman so thoroughly traditional still be a feminist heroine? The depiction of the alternate Mary in Pottersville may indeed be sexist, a way of saying, “Here’s what happens when a woman is denied her natural destiny of marriage and motherhood.” Yet what most people overlook when thinking about Mary is that she’s actually the one who saves the day. While George is learning his life has value even if he ends up in jail, Mary is busy doing what’s needed to keep him out of jail. The instant she sees he is in trouble, she’s on the phone with Uncle Billy to set her plan in motion. And that plan works, because she understands the support system George has built up over the years, and has faith in it when he does not. Not a passive hand-wringer waiting for others to solve the problem, she steps up and gets the job done. In that respect, yes, Mary is a feminist heroine, showing us that a woman need not make non-traditional choices in order to be capable and brave.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the movie is its remarkable supporting cast, a hallmark of classic-era cinema. That guy giving the tragi-comic performance as the disastrously flawed Uncle Billy? He’s Thomas Mitchell, a ubiquitous character actor who has never gotten the credit he deserves for his massive contribution to classic cinema; film buffs may remember him in Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and High Noon. The venerable Lionel Barrymore oozes malevolence as Mr. Potter; this was the first role I saw him play, and the first time I saw him as a sympathetic character (Disko Troop in 1937’s Captains Courageous), once I recovered from the shock, I realized the magnitude of his talent. Then there’s Henry Travers, bringing just the right blend of humor, wisdom, and whimsy to the role of Clarence the guardian angel. Great actors make strong impressions in small roles. As a fan of classic cinema, I can’t help smiling every time I see Ward Bond, here playing Bert the cop.
Finally, I guess it’s the optimist in me, but I believe that after the movie has faded to black, George does get his chance to travel, with Mary at his side and the warm-hearted Ma Bailey looking after the kids. After all, at the film’s close, George has lots of money, far more than he needs to pay his debt, right? We’re not told what he’ll do with it all, so if I want to imagine he uses it to sail around the world, I can. In my version, the people he has helped finally give him his dream.
(Next in Christmas Cinema: Believing in a “Miracle.” Yes, I love that one, too.)